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How to Prevent the Next Titanic: Shifting Our Focus From Ships to the Ocean Itself

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The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is now with us. Dozens of events have been planned and the story keeps enthralling us, despite the fact that so few of us travel by large ocean liners anymore. For the record, the beginning of our fascination with disasters of titanic proportions started with the great Lisbon tsunami of 1755, which changed the way Europeans viewed nature and God, as candidly described by Voltaire over two centuries ago. 

Recent events provide clues why ship disasters captivate us. In January's sinking of Costa Concordia off Isola de Giglio in Italy, 30 died, a surprising number given that the ship was only 5 years-old, and the accident occurred within a few hundred feet off the nearest port. Survivors described harrowing scenes before evacuating, conflicting instructions, delays, inability of the crew to deploy life rafts, people left stranded for hours hanging from rope ladders, salacious stories of the captain's whereabouts the minutes before the sinking, and abandonment by some of the crew. Hollywood couldn't have done it any better, Lord Jim and the Poseidon adventure, combined. 

The Costa Concordia captain claimed that the undersea rock formation his ship hit was unchartered, i.e., it was not present in navigational charts. Similar claims have been made in other recent marine disasters. In 2000, MSS Express Samina, a ferry with 534 passengers and crew sunk killing 82 people off the island of Paros in the eastern Mediterranean. In 2005, the USS submarine San Francisco hit an unmapped seamount about 350 miles south of Guam, but managed to be towed to the nearest port. In 2007, the cruise ship MS Sea Diamond hit a reef inside the otherwise well mapped caldera of the Thera volcano in the Aegean -- out of 1195 passengers and crew, two remain missing. In all four disasters, the images are unnervingly similar: large gashes at the exterior of the ship, suggestive of what the stricken Titanic must have looked like.  In all cases, accidents occurred in calm seas, and captains blamed faulty navigational charts and in one case, unexpected currents. 

The sinking of the Titanic led to design changes in its sister ship Brittanic, which sunk in the Aegean after striking a mine, the largest ship lost in World War I. Double hulls were introduced to the boiler rooms and watertight bulkheads were raised up, large cranes were installed to facilitate the launching of lifeboats. While the Brittanic was at the time used as a hospital ship and sunk in about 1/4 of the time of the Titanic, only 30 out of 1036 died.  The demise of ships has always precipitated design improvements and regulations, and recently the European Union limited the age of passenger ships in European waters to 30 years. We are rapidly getting to the point of diminishing returns in terms of design without huge added costs. To improve marine safety, we need to shift focus to the sea itself. 

The world's oceans are full of submarine mounts and ridges in relatively deep waters. Any voyage through the Red Sea is fraught with danger as only a narrow safe passage exists through the thousands of surrounding sand bars and reefs.  With the exception of small slivers of coastal waters, most of California's coast is unmapped. Navigational charts worldwide are largely based on soundings -- readings of the local depth -- done over 100 years ago by the British and French navies. Hydrographic offices sell expensive digital aids for navigation that are inexcusably imprecise and out of date.  Geophysicists often joke how we know the details of the surface of the planet Venus in greater detail than we know our own seafloor.   Water currents are very poorly understood, yet they sometimes can change considerably over days and can easily veer a ship off course with disastrous consequences. 

The shipping industry should take note. Indeed there are titanic-size gaps in our knowledge of the details and motions of the seafloor. High resolution mapping of the most traveled routes costs a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions each sinking costs, much more if there are spills. Rogue waves can appear without warning and can literally break ships in seconds, yet they are elusive and even less understood than tsunamis; they were considered mythical before 1995, when first measured.  Floating weather stations in the deep sea (buoys) that transmit real time data for winds, sea surface heights, water temperatures and currents can vastly improve weather forecasts and anticipate rogue waves, yet are sparse.  The only operational system in the Mediterranean is the Hellenic Marine Research Center's Poseidon.  It cost less than a luxury yacht. Poseidon receives 800,000 hits per month from mariners, but the Greek government is finding it impossible to maintain, amidst its other woes. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration operates a large network of buoys in the Pacific, but poor maintenance is an issue, buoys are sacrificed to reduce "big government."  As they go offline, the quality of marine forecasts diminishes markedly. 

As the cruise and shipping industries expand, they should share the costs of marine-weather forecasts and of high resolution mapping of the seafloor. Well-built ships are no match even for benign sand bars or Perfect Storm waves. Design improvements are without exception addressing lessons learned from the last disaster, but it is hard to anticipate unknowns.  A ship-based real time  system transmitting measurements of sea surface temperature, salinity and weather information costs less than US$50,000 per installation. Yet, even if deployed in 10 percent of the ships industry wide, it can lead to dramatic improvements  in the accuracy of sea-state forecasts and  improve safety substantially.  As a bonus, the data will provide valuable information in assessing climate change. With similar investments, slower moving ships can help markedly improve navigational charts.  

The lasting legacy of the Titanic is not only the professionalism of the crew (and its orchestra which kept playing), but that the inconceivable can and does sometimes happen. Improving the odds of survival of ships and passengers relies increasingly on learning more about our waves, winds and seafloors.